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Carly Fiorina: Tough Choices

Carly 2.0 was released this week.
Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of HP, is on tour for her book, Tough Choices. Yesterday, I went.
Are you surprised I went? I was. I had heard enough stories here in the Valley from friends over dinners and lunches about Carly’s infamous entourage of 20 fanning into rooms before “the diva” arrived. I was pretty sure this was not my role model or mentor. Yet, I felt compelled. If the Pope comes into town and you are Catholic, you go, right? If you were a leading Republican and George Bush came into your local town in California, you’d have gone right? Well, maybe not today but in 2002, post 9-11, you’d have gone to show support. Well, the corollary is that if you are CEO in high-tech and Carly Fiorina comes to town, you go. Can you guess how many women CEOs are part of the Fortune 1000 crowd? 10% would make it 100. But only 20 of the 1,000 are women. Narrow it down to high-tech, and the number is dismal. 3, (pause) count ‘em 3: Anne, Pat, and Meg. Carly was named “the Most Powerful Business Woman in America” by Fortune beating out Oprah, so that makes her pretty much the Pope-equivalent for all women CEOs. I had to go.
A couple key things I learned, observed and have reflected on….
Starting with the Obvious. Carly, girlfriend, can own a stage. Plus, she owned her message. For example, when Quentin said Carly had a year and a half to “stew” on the firing, and Carly came back within a minute and reflected…”I didn’t stew; I considered.” Message control. She reinforced her core points and if you review the news articles, you’ll see a remarkably consistent set of word choices in all the articles. She could be, probably will be, a professional politician one day.
Change Maestro. Ms. Fiorina is fundamentally a high-change person. She went to school in East Africa where she was the only white person in the room. She experienced 5 schools during her 4 years of high school. As she told her many stories, I had the sense perhaps that Carly probably feels uncomfortable when there’s not change. The Board must have chosen her for the positive side of that quality but didn’t perhaps recognize in advance the other side of the coin? All leaders need to know when to wait, when to pause, to reflect, and let some of that change get owned within the organization. Creating a transformation is not about turning up the tables, because that is not transformation, that’s chaos. Transformation happens when you have the organization decide what to move, to give up, to adopt. Transformation happens when people follow.
“A leader’s job is to see possibilities in people, in ideas,” says Carly. I love it. It’s inspiring and certainly describes most successful CEOs I know. And what wasn’t said? It’s that all leaders must also possess a clear assessment of what IS?
And I’ve been thinking…

None of us can navigate change for the sake of change, but to help move, nudge, coax, and inspire forward motion towards some…thing — a vision of what can be. People absolutely need to focus on what they CAN do, and what is possible, while making sure the way in which we do things needs to address the organizational context. Thanks to Barry Posner and David Caldwell at Santa Clara University for teaching me that in concept and for the many businesses I’ve been a part of as inside or outside advisor to practice what works. I wish Carly had taken some of your coursework, Dean Posner.

Leadership Contained? One common theme of the last 2 weeks of articles is that Carly blames her dismissal on notion of board dysfunction. Dysfunction defined as the moment when people can no longer speak plainly about issues, when people put issues under the table, work the backroom, define issues over power, and stop focusing on the larger common goal. Dysfunctional because personal agendas rule. And I don’t know a person who hasn’t watched the pretexting and Dunn behavior who doesn’t agree with her HP board assessment. But she says, it’s limited to the Board. I don’t know the situation of course. But I do know enough about leadership and organizations to know that every leadership team impacts the company, the people, the choices. Small and large decisions are impacted. If you really believe leadership styles don’t flow down, in good situations AND bad, you haven’t watched many organizations at work. Carly, what did you do to change the dynamic of the Board? Anything? Nothing? Because that would be telling of how much you lead vs. managed.
Surprised by her dismissal. She was surprised (eyebrows up, with arch raised)? Seriously, what planet was she living on? She is quoted in NY Times, Information Week, and at the talk with the exact same line: Here’s what the firing was not about,” it was not about performance. She goes onto to say she didn’t expect to get fired and she was surprised. I don’t know a ton about HP and the specifics but even at 20,000 feet away, it seemed like it was clearly going to happen. My question to Carly: Does saying it enough times make it real for you?
Authenticity. Quentin asked her some incredibly good, tough questions. The majority of which just went sailing by. Chris (whose last name I need to learn), the Director of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs asked a great question about what could be done to increase women on board seats. And yet, none of the questions got answered. Carly stayed on point with her book tour talking points, and didn’t engage on any topic she didn’t want to. And while she talked about herself being an authentic leader, I saw this — this relative inflexibility to be real, live, engaged with the people in front of her that made me think this was a desire and not as real as it could be. When I got several books signed, I said that history would tell what her HP role really was, and she said “I’m telling history”. True, and yet missed the point. [But I did shake her hand. CarlyandI10_2006.jpg]
My favorite: Metrics. To end on a positive note, her smartest comment of the day was this. Every company makes a series of decisions that show up later (sometimes, much later) in business results. Profits, P/E ratios, etc are all lagging indicators of a company’s health. Leading indicators are much harder to define. Carly set metrics at HP to look at 3 defining ones that were leading indicators to her business success: Customer satisfaction levels (she claims, she knew that Dell would fall once she looked at this metric), rate of innovation (measured by patents), diversity of workforce as an indicator of how well an organization ferments ideas and enables the richness of talent to shine. Makes me want to ask all of you, do you know what metrics are leading vs. trailing for your business?
So Carly 2.0 was announced, the analysts / press / book tour is on.
Let’s see what becomes of this … let’s let history give us more perspective of this CEO leader.

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